Saturday, October 15, 2005

Re-birth of a ciy?

So, I was watching a documentary about D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," a profoundly racist diatribe by an unreconstructed (in his own words) Southern racist, based on a novel praising the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, and I started wondering: how much has changed?

Louis Farrakhan, for example, is excoriated for suggesting the levees in New Orleans were deliberately dynamited. Which would be merely wild fantasy, if it weren't for the fact some people remember history better than others:

In "Rising Tide," John Barry's history of the 1927 flood, Papa Blanc, as he was known, is cast as one of the villains who pressed the government to dynamite the levees below New Orleans and flood the outlying parishes in order to spare the city; he then stiffed the victims, on behalf of the city, when they came for reparations.
Which isn't to say Minister Farrakhan is right; it's just to ssy that Faulkner was right: the past isn't over. It isn't even past.

My great-grandfather J. Blanc Monroe is dead and gone, but he didn't take with him the climate of suspicion between rich and poor that he apparently helped foster. On St. Claude Avenue, just below the French Quarter, there was a scene of indigents, old people and gay men employed in the arts fleeing what they took to be bombs being dropped on them by Army helicopters. What were being dropped were, in fact, ready-to-eat meals and water in plastic jugs. But falling from the sky, these missiles looked unfriendly, and when the jugs hit concrete, they exploded and threw up shrapnel. The people in the area had heard from the police that George W. Bush intended to visit the city that day, and they could not imagine he meant them any good - but this attack, as they took it, came as a shock. "Run! Run!" screamed a man among the hordes trying to outrun the chopper. "It's the president!"
The fact is, paranois is as American as apple pie:

The police had said that gangs of young black men were looting and killing their way across the city, and the news had reached the men inside the forts. These men also had another informational disadvantage: working TV sets. Over and over and over again, they replayed the same few horrifying scenes from the Superdome, the convention center and a shop in downtown New Orleans. If the images were to be reduced to a sentence in the minds of Uptown New Orleans, that sentence would be: Crazy black people with automatic weapons are out hunting white people, and there's no bag limit! "The perspective you are getting from me," one of Fort Huger's foot soldiers said, as he walked around the living room with an M-16, "is the perspective of the guy who is getting disinformation and reacting accordingly." He spoke, for those few days, for much of the city, including the mayor and the police chief.
There were even people renting Russian assault helicopters and hiring ex-Israeli commandos to secure their property against "looters." And the reality of the situation?

The old houses were also safe. There wasn't a house in the Garden District, or Uptown, that could not have been easily entered; there wasn't a house in either area that didn't have food and water to keep a family of five alive for a week; and there was hardly a house in either place that had been violated in any way. And the grocery stores! I spent some time inside a Whole Foods choosing from the selection of PowerBars. The door was open, the shelves groaned with untouched bottles of water and food. Downtown, 25,000 people spent the previous four days without food and water when a few miles away - and it's a lovely stroll - entire grocery stores, doors ajar, were untouched. From the moment the crisis downtown began, there had been a clear path, requiring maybe an hour's walk, to food, water and shelter. And no one, not a single person, it seemed, took it.
Read the entire article, because the overall picture is actually this:

But so far as I can tell - and I covered much of the city, along with every inch of the high ground - very few of the many terrible things that people are reported to have done to one another ever happened. With the brutal exception of the violent young men forcibly detained in the Superdome and the convention center with 25,000 or so potential victims, civilians actually treated one another extremely well. (There's a different story to tell about government officials.) So far as I can tell, no one supposedly defending his property actually fired a shot at anyone else - though there have been a couple of stories, unconfirmed, of warning shots being fired. Yet even as the water flowed back out of the city, my father called to say that a friend in exile had just informed him that "they had to shoot about 500 looters." The only looter admitted to Ochsner, the city's one functioning hospital, was a white guy who was beaten, not shot - though badly enough that a surgeon had to remove his spleen.

"The greatest savagery was that of our public officials..." Take Gretna, Louisiana, for example.

But if there is, in this, cause for optimism, Mr, Lewis provides that, too:

The late great novelist Walker Percy, a lifelong New Orleanian, was attracted to the psychological state of the ex-suicide. The ex-suicide is the man who has tried to kill himself and failed. Before his suicide attempt, he had nothing to live for. Now, expecting to be dead and discovering himself alive, something inside him awakens: so long as he's alive, he might as well give living a shot. The whole of New Orleans is in this psychological state. The waters did their worst but still left the old city intact. They did to the public schools and the public-housing projects what the government should have done long ago. They called forth tens of billions of dollars in aid, and the attention of energetic people, to a city long starved of capital and energy. For the first time in my life, outsiders are pouring into the city to do something other than drink. For the first time in my life, the city is alive with possibilities. For the first time in my life, it doesn't matter one bit who is born to be a king. Whatever else New Orleans is right now, it isn't stagnant. As I left, I thought about what an oddly characteristic thing it would be if it was a flood that saved New Orleans.
As Wendell Berry's Mad Farmer says: "Practice resurrection."

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